Kirk Bloodsworth’s Story

Kirk Bloodsworth is the first American sentenced to death row who was exonerated by DNA.

A former Marine discus champion, Kirk was convicted and sentenced to die in Maryland’s gas chamber for the 1984 rape and murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Rosedale, Maryland.

The principal evidence used against Kirk was the testimony of five witnesses who placed him with the victim or near the scene of the crime. The prosecution also introduced evidence purporting to link a pair of his shoes to marks on the victim’s body.

Kirk vehemently maintained his innocence and served as his own best advocate while incarcerated. He wrote one letter daily to innocence projects, musicians, actors, anyone, hoping to find someone who would believe in him. In 1992, Bloodsworth read an account of how DNA fingerprinting had led to the conviction of a murderer. Hoping that DNA could prove his innocence, he pushed to have the evidence against him tested by the then-novel method.

Initially, the available evidence in the case was thought to have been destroyed; however, it was eventually located in a paper bag in the judge’s chambers. Testing proved that evidence from the crime scene did not match Bloodsworth’s DNA profile.

After nine years in one of America’s harshest prison, two of them on death row, Kirk was released on June 28, 1993. The next year, Maryland’s governor granted Kirk a full pardon based on innocence. The state of Maryland paid Kirk $300,000 for lost income based on the rough calculation that he would have earned $30,000 per year for the years from his arrest to release.

Nearly a decade after Kirk’s release, in 2003, a forensic biologist studying the case found stains on a sheet that had been used to wrap the victim. These stains, which had not been tested, produced a DNA profile that, when added to the FBI’s national DNA database (CODIS), identified the real killer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner.

One month after the murder of Dawn Hamilton, Ruffner had been sentenced to 45 years for an unrelated burglary, attempted rape and assault with intent to murder. Ironically, Ruffner arrived at the same prison soon after Kirk. The two men had lifted weights together in prison and Kirk, who had been a prison librarian in his later years of incarceration, had regularly delivered books to Ruffner. Though Ruffner was well aware of Kirk’s case, his claim of innocence and his attempts to win a new trial, Ruffner said nothing to lead Kirk to suspect that he had killed Dawn Hamilton. Kirk learned the news shortly before Ruffner was formally charged with the crime.

Kirk has been a tireless advocate for civil rights and justice for the innocent, speaking out nationally against the death penalty. He testified before Congress on behalf of the Innocence Protection Act, subsequently enacted with bipartisan support. The Act authorized establishment of the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program that provides funding to help defray the cost of post-conviction DNA testing.

The Illinois Innocence Project has received an unprecedented five federal grants, three of which are Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing grants, the most recent awarded in fall 2015. Thanks to Bloodsworth DNA funding, IIP was able to prove the actual innocence of Christopher Abernathy, released in February 2015 after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment; and, in partnership with the New York-based Innocence Project, Angel Gonzalez, released in March 2015, after 21 years of wrongful imprisonment.

(Bio is excerpted from Kirk Bloodsworth case summary written by Rob Warden and filed with the National Registry of Exonerations; and Wikipedia, Kirk Bloodsworth.)